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Top enlisted soldier on mold problem at Florida base: 'MacDill was the worst place I ever lived.'

Master Gunnery Sgt. Blaine Jones speaks with students of the first-ever Joint Professional Military Education course at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., January 8, 2019.

CALEB NUNEZ/AIR FORCE

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Bay Times | Published: February 13, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Sgt. Maj. Jason Collins is a member of the elite Green Berets who has been deployed 18 times. He has served in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, earning two Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star for valor. As he prepares for retirement, he is serving as an instructor at U.S Special Operations Command’s Joint Special Operations University.

Master Gunnery Sgt. Blaine Jones is the first Marine selected to be the Joint Operations senior enlisted advisor for U.S. Central Command. He has also had nine combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, earning a Bronze Star for valor.

They are the two senior enlisted leaders at MacDill Air Force Base, and they have something else in common.

Each filed complaints with MacDill’s Inspector General’s office about mold and other problems with their on-base housing. They’ve also complained about the lack of adequate response by Harbor Bay at MacDill, the management company that operates 527 residential units at the base.

They are among about a half-dozen people who have come forward to talk about their mold issues in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times story highlighting the issue.

Their complaints include severe health issues that the families believe are associated with moldy conditions inside their homes; maintenance staff that took too long to respond to their complaints — or ignored them, in some cases; and service members who had to keep paying Harbor Bay even after moving out of homes they felt were unsafe.

Massiel Villanueva, whose husband is an officer stationed at Special Operations Command Central, said after living in on-base housing her son developed so many medical problems he had to be hospitalized several times, including at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

These complaints follow the grievances of at least 10 other families who previously spoke out about mold issues in their base housing units, which in many cases also led to health issues. Some of these complaints will be brought up in Congressional hearings this week on the problem of substandard living conditions found at military bases nationwide — 99 percent of which are operated by private companies like Harbor Bay.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on this issue and the House Armed Services Committee will hold a closed-door roundtable session Thursday. The hearings were called after reporting by Reuters about problems at other bases across the nation.

“We’ve heard stories from MacDill families that are both heart-wrenching and blood-boiling because military families deserve better,” said Chip Unruh, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island. “This isn’t a localized problem. We have heard from families all over the country.

“This hearing is designed to get a better handle on the scope of the problem, what is being done, and what more needs to happen to ensure that every military family has safe, quality, and affordable housing.”

Amie Norquist and Traci Lenz, military spouses whose families have experienced health issues they attribute to mold that infested their MacDill base housing, are among the local families traveling to Washington D.C. for the hearings. Other families submitted written responses.

Harbor Bay and its parent company Michaels Military Housing, which have been penalized by MacDill over mold issues in the past, are now the subject of Congressional inquiries filed by two House Republicans, U.S. Rep Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key.

Harbor Bay officials did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations made by Collins, Jones and others who have come forward since the Times first reported the problems. The company has said in the past that housing concerns raised by the families were resolved — but the families dispute that. Officials at the 6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill’s host unit, said they cannot discuss individual cases. Bilirakis is set to tour the base Feb. 21.

Though many active duty troops suffering from mold problems have been reluctant to speak out publicly on the issue, Collins and Jones both say they are speaking up so that others — especially younger, lower-ranking troops — don’t have to suffer the way they have.

“This is the worst place I have ever been for base housing,” said Jones, who has been forced to move his wife and four children into a camper at MacDill’s family campground due to their issues with Harbor Bay.

Mold, infestation and mushrooms

Collins and Jones lived just a few houses apart in MacDill, in duplexes on Billy Mitchell Loop. Both moved into their units in January 2017 . Both reported similar problems, such as mold, insects, leaks, broken appliances, family health issues and a lack of response from Harbor Bay.

Collins, 46, who moved into 1711 Billy Mitchell Loop, said he immediately noticed a litany of problems, including mold, leaks and water stains. He said that he complained to housing officials, but was told that if he did not move in right away another family on the waiting list would get their unit.

So they moved in. But the mold issues persisted. The air conditioning system leaked. Stucco fell off the building. His wife and oldest daughter started experiencing respiratory problems. With little or no satisfactory response from Harbor Bay, Collins said the family moved to Valrico in October 2017.

A month later, Collins filed a complaint with the base inspector general’s office. Because they were still under lease when they moved out, he said Harbor Bay penalized them about $4,000. He said the mold and other housing problems were a big reason he opted to leave the Army after nearly three decades. He is scheduled to retire in April.

“I had better conditions forward deployed,” Collins said. “MacDill was the worst place I ever lived.”

John Campbell, who retired as an Army sergeant major last summer, was living in the other half of the duplex that Collins moved out of. Like the Collins family, he said he experienced mold issues and family health issues. Unlike the Collins family, he said Harbor Bay responded to his concerns.

Jones, 41, said he had the same problems that Collins did. Jones said he also had mold and other issues since moving into 1705 Billy Mitchell Loop, said had a hard time getting his problems addressed.

The problems started immediately, he said.

The house was dirty when his family moved in, with animal food on the floor, stains on the carpets and windows with black mold. It took several calls to maintenance before anyone came out to clean up his place, and even then Jones said their work was unsatisfactory.

Shortly after moving in, he said his family suffered health problems. Jones said he had respiratory issues, a teenage daughter started getting rashes and his wife had respiratory issues and headaches. Those problems abated when the Jones family went to visit relatives in March 2017, but quickly returned when they got back to MacDill.

Initially, Jones said he chalked it up to Tampa’s humidity — then his wife called him at work to report mushrooms growing out of the carpet in the master bedroom. Then he added leaks, animal infestation, mold under the carpeting and his daughter’s worsening health issues to the list of problems. After a lack of response from Harbor Bay, Jones said his family finally moved into a camper in January, 2018.

“If me and my family are being treated this way,” Jones said, “how are junior enlisted troops being treated?”

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